What is a pathologist and what is his or her role in the medical community?

Most people tend to recognize pathologists from movies and television as the person who performs autopsies.  While this is an extremely important responsibility of a pathologist, it comprises only a very small fraction of a pathologists day to day services.  A pathologist is often referred to as the “doctor’s doctor” because a pathologist is the ‘consultant’ to physicians of all other disciplines in providing expertise and diagnoses when needed.  Following medical school, a pathologist spends 4-5 years completing additional education and training that covers all types of disease processes.  Pathology is classically divided into the areas of Anatomic Pathology and Clinical Pathology.


An Anatomic Pathologist …

  • Macroscopically examines specimens obtained by a biopsy or other surgical procedures.
  • Microscopically evaluates pieces of the tissue for indications of disease.
  • Develops specific diagnostic reports and communicates with physicians regarding the nature and prognosis of specific diseases.
  • Develops new and enhanced laboratory procedures to ensure more accurate and timely diagnoses.
  • Monitors the quality of test results generated by other members of the laboratory team (i.e., cytotechnologists – Pap smears).


A Clinical Pathologist …

Pathologists, in their capacity as medical directors of clinical laboratories, provide valuable and necessary medical services for their patients.  These services and responsibilities are mandated by the Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments and focus, in large part, on ensuring that the results of laboratory tests are timely, medically reliable, and clinically useful.  In addition, the pathologist assumes medical responsibility and legal liability for these results.

These essential medical services include:

  • Assuring that tests, examinations, and procedures are properly performed, recorded and reported;
  • Interacting with members of the medical staff regarding issues of laboratory operations, quality, and test availability;
  • Designing protocols and establishing parameters for performance of clinical testing;
  • Recommending appropriate follow-up diagnostic tests, when appropriate;
  • Supervising laboratory technicians and advising technicians regarding aberrant results;
  • Selecting, evaluating, and validating test methodologies;
  • Directing, performing, and evaluating quality assurance and control procedures;
  • Evaluating clinical laboratory data and establishing a process for review of test results prior to issuance of patient reports; and
  • Assuring the laboratory’s compliance with Iowa state licensure laws, Medicare Conditions of Participation, Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations standards, the College of American Pathologists Laboratory Accreditation Program, and Federal certification standards.


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